AP

Prisons chief deflects blame for failures, angering senators

Jul 26, 2022, 4:03 PM | Updated: Jul 27, 2022, 7:16 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — With just days left in his tenure, the embattled director of the federal prison system faced a bipartisan onslaught Tuesday as he refused to accept responsibility for a culture of corruption and misconduct that has plagued his agency for years.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, testifying before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, insisted he had been shielded from problems by his underlings — even though he’d been copied on emails, and some of the troubles were detailed in reports generated by the agency’s headquarters.

Carvajal, who resigned in January and is set to be replaced next week by Oregon’s state prison director Colette Peters, blamed the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons for his ignorance on issues such as inmate suicides, sexual abuse, and the free flow of drugs, weapons and other contraband that has roiled some of the agency’s 122 facilities.

Carvajal said several times that the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest component with a budget of more than $8 billion — was a “very large and complex organization” and that there was “no possible way” for him to know everything that was going on.

Carvajal’s attempts to deflect responsibility for his leadership failings didn’t sit well with the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., nor its ranking member, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., whose scrutiny of the Bureau of Prisons was spurred in part by Associated Press reporting that has exposed myriad crises at the agency.

Further aggravating the senators, Carvajal initially refused to testify, only doing so after the subcommittee subpoenaed him on July 14 — and then, upon arriving in the hearing room, claiming he was there voluntarily. Ossoff withdrew the subpoena immediately before Carvajal’s testimony, only after the director appeared at the hearing.

“It’s almost willful ignorance, and that’s what I find disturbing,” Johnson said of Carvajal’s reluctance to own his mistakes. “Don’t want to know what’s happening below me. Don’t want to hear about rapes. Don’t want to hear about suicides.”

Added Ossoff: “It’s a disgrace. And for the answer to be other people deal with that. I got the report. I don’t remember. It’s completely unacceptable.”

Afterward, Carvajal ran from reporters seeking to speak with him about his testimony. The director, who’s declined nearly all interview requests since taking office in 2020, ducked into a freight elevator with aides before bolting down a stairwell once they realized reporters had followed them in.

Tuesday’s hearing, one of several promised by the subcommittee, focused on years of misconduct and abuse at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, but the problems unearthed there speak to larger systemic issues in the Bureau of Prisons, such as severe staffing shortages, deficient health care and barely edible food.

The Atlanta prison, a 120-year-old relic in Ossoff’s home state, once housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including gangster Al Capone, James “Whitey” Bulger and Carlo Ponzi, the namesake of the “Ponzi Scheme.” Today, it’s a crumbling, medium-security facility — no longer a penitentiary in the true sense of the term — with about 900 male inmates, including people awaiting trial.

Tuesday’s hearing, which featured testimony from Atlanta whistleblowers prior to Carvajal’s questioning, came amid an AP investigation that has exposed widespread problems within the agency, including criminal employees, escaping inmates, a women’s prison known to staff and inmates as the “rape club” because of rampant staff sexual abuse, and critically low staffing that has hampered responses to emergencies.

Witnesses described what they said was known as the “Atlanta Way” — a culture that allowed misconduct at the prison to persist for years.

Carvajal told the committee he only learned of the prison’s problems last year and immediately took action, reducing the inmate population and removing dozens of managers. Despite that, the witnesses said, the facility is still in dire straits.

Ossoff said evidence obtained by the subcommittee’s investigators showed agency leadership was made aware of problems at Atlanta as far back as 2014. Carvajal has been part a member of the agency’s senior leadership since 2013.

Erika Ramirez, the Atlanta prison’s former chief psychologist, said she was transferred to a different federal prison out of retaliation after raising concerns about poor conditions and a rash of inmate suicides. Ramirez said she alerted the prison’s warden, other higher ups and the agency’s headquarters, to no avail.

Ramirez said contraband issues were so prevalent that she confiscated a smuggled microwave from one inmate, only to find it in another prisoner’s cell just a few days later. She said she confirmed it was the same device when she saw the serial number, she said.

Ramirez said the mold-riddled prison had such shoddy infrastructure, elevators were constantly broken and the sewers would overflow into the recreation yard during rain storms, sometimes leaving a foot of human waste behind.

Terri Whitehead, a administrator who left the prison last year, testified there were so many rats in the food service area, employees would leave the prison’s doors to the outside wide open so stray cats could take care of them — an approach she said compromised the prison’s security.

Ossoff told the AP after the hearing that Carvajal’s testimony “lacked credibility at times” and that the director’s claims that he wasn’t aware of the issues at the Atlanta prison until about a year ago “strains credulity.”

In one of the hearing’s tensest moments, Ossoff pressed Carvajal on rampant sexual abuse at FCI Dublin, a federal women’s prison in California’s Bay Area known to staff and inmates as the “rape club.” Among the Dublin employees charged so far, the prison’s former warden.

“Is the Bureau of Prisons able to keep female detainees safe from sexual abuse by staff?” Ossoff asked. “Yes or no?”

“Yes, we are,” Carvajal shot back. “In those cases when things happen, we hold people appropriately accountable.”

“You are the director at a time when one of your prisons is known to staff and inmates as a ‘rape club,” Ossoff said, to silence and stares from Carvajal.

Pressed for an answer, Carvajal said the matter is under investigation.

Afterward, Ossoff took issue with Carvajal’s claims that the Bureau of Prisons can keep female inmates — or any inmates — safe.

“It is demonstrably false that female detainees in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons are safe,” Ossoff told the AP. “It is demonstrably false. And it is demonstrably false that any inmates can rely upon the quality of care and medical care at multiple BOP facilities.”

___

On Twitter, follow Michael Balsamo at twitter.com/mikebalsamo1 and Michael Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak. Send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

American Airlines put an unspecified number of employees on leave for their involvement in an incid...

Associated Press

American Airlines CEO calls removal of Black passengers from Phoenix flight ‘unacceptable’

American Airlines put an unspecified number of employees on leave for their involvement in an incident in which several Black passengers were removed from a flight in Phoenix.

5 days ago

FILE - Crystal Baziel holds the Pan-African flag Monday, June 19, 2023, during Reedy Chapel A.M.E C...

Associated Press

The beginner’s guide to celebrating Juneteenth

For more than one-and-a-half centuries, the Juneteenth holiday has been sacred to many Black communities. It marks the day in 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas found out they had been freed — after the end of the Civil War, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Since it was designated a federal […]

6 days ago

A Boeing 737 Max suffered damage to parts of the plane's structure after it went into a “Dutch ro...

Associated Press

Plane that did ‘Dutch roll’ on flight from Phoenix suffered structural damage, investigators say

A Boeing 737 Max suffered damage to parts of the plane's structure after it went into a “Dutch roll” during a flight from Phoenix last month.

11 days ago

This photo provided by Randy Shannon shows Mooney Falls on the Havasupai reservation outside the vi...

Associated Press

Dozens report illness after trips to waterfalls near Grand Canyon

Dozens of hikers say they fell ill during trips to a popular Arizona tourist destination that features towering blue-green waterfalls deep in a gorge neighboring Grand Canyon National Park.

12 days ago

Mugshot of Rudy Giuliani, who was processed Monday, June 10, 2024, in the Arizona fake electors cas...

Associated Press

Rudy Giuliani posts $10K cash bond after being processed in Arizona fake electors case

Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and Donald Trump attorney, was processed Monday in the Arizona fake electors case.

14 days ago

FILE - White House former chief of staff Mark Meadows speaks with reporters at the White House, Wed...

Associated Press

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows pleads not guilty in Arizona fake elector case

Former Donald Trump presidential chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump 2020 Election Day operations director Michael Roman pleaded not guilty Friday in Phoenix to nine felony charges for their roles in an effort to overturn Trump's Arizona election loss to Joe Biden.

18 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

Prisons chief deflects blame for failures, angering senators